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Rosie's Babysitter.

ROSIE IS famous for riveting, for working on WWII assembly lines, making big bombers. The size of the war and the urgent demand for fleets of warbirds made for long work hours. That left little free time outside the factory for the 300,000 women employed by the aviation industry. And a good number of those workers were mothers, with kids at home, and husbands off at war. It didn't take long to figure out that Rosie the Riveter desperately needed a babysitter.

Rosie was no mere aviation industry assembly-line worker, of course; she was and still is a symbol of all women workers during World War II. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, some 13 million women had been employed outside the home. Then, as men vacated jobs of all sorts to head overseas with the military, and as manufacturing geared up to supply the expanding fighting forces, 6 million more women joined the civilian workforce. Almost 4 million of the 19 million total were mothers, and most of them needed help taking care of what were soon dubbed "eighthour orphans." Many of these Rosies eventually got help from Uncle Sam.

The term day care didn't become common until during the war, but the concept had been around for decades. The first day care facility in the United States was a late-1800s nonprofit in New York City. The federal government's first involvement in that realm came during the Depression, primarily in the form of funding for nursery schools--not so much to aid working mothers as to create jobs for unemployed teachers. The program enrolled 75,000 children at 1,900 schools.

Then came World War II. Besides creating a lot of job openings, the war also triggered a wedding and baby boom as couples hurried to marry--and honeymoon-- before young men left home. This was good news, but there were negative repercussions. Companies trying to meet war production goals suffered from mothers calling in sick to stay home with their kids. There were more serious problems, too, such as those reported by Time magazine in July 1942: "The children of some woman have been found locked up in cars ... or wandering the streets with door keys around their neck. Child delinquency in the U.S. is up sharply.."

Congress responded in 1942 by passing an amendment to the 1941 Lanham Act that directed the government to contribute to child care services. That amendment was soon interpreted as allowing the government to set up child care centers all over the county. Often housed in public school buildings, centers began opening quickly in 1943. Local communities contributed part of the cost, while the federal government covered the rest. Mothers were eligible as long as they held jobs and paid at least the cost of the food provided to their children.

Government-backed day care centers served 635 communities spread across every state except New Mexico (which didn't request funding). They peaked in 1944 with 3,000 facilities and 130,000 kids. One in every four children in California was enrolled at the war's end. Still, during the three years the centers were open, only a fraction of all mothers who needed the help received it.

Despite the program's success, it had many dissenters from the start. Mothers had traditionally stayed home with their kids, and most people believed that was best; as a National Federation of Day Nurseries bulletin stated in the decade before the war, "the day nursery ought to be the last choice in the care of children." FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover urged moms to stay home and halt "the drift of normal youth toward immorality and crime." A 1943 Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of mothers said they would not put their kids in a government day care center even if it was free.

As the war ended, the program was scheduled for shutdown in October 1945. But federal subsidies continued into February 1946, by which time most servicemen had returned home. Most of the centers then closed, with only California, New York City, and Philadelphia keeping some open with state and city money.

With an eye to the future, a woman in Philadelphia wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as the federally funded centers shut down: ".We have to face the fact that there are married women with young children who have to go to work. In such cases, it would seem to be in the interests of the community to organize child care centers and see that they are properly run."

Caption: A trained assistant serves lunch to kids in a federally funded day care while their mothers are at work.
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Title Annotation:HOME FRONT; Rosie the Riveter
Author:Zebrowski, Carl
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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